For many years leading European food retailers have been following a strict non-GMO policy. Retailers are the parties most concerned when it comes to GMO regulation. For them, the proper implementation of an ECJ ruling is crucial, writes Heike Moldenhauer.
Heike Moldenhauer is an EU policy advisor at the German Association Food without Genetic Engineering (VLOG).
One year ago, on the 25 July 2018, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) published its landmark ruling on the legal status of new genetic engineering methods such as CRISPR/Cas and the resulting products.
The highest European court made it unequivocally clear: New genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are subject to EU GMO legislation. The judgement was a great relief for the entire non-GMO food sector, both the organic and the conventional. It gives breeders, farmers, food and feed manufacture, traders and retailers the legal certainty they need for their business, for it confirmed that the precautionary principle, the need for health and environmental risk assessment and labelling requirements fully apply to new GMOs as well.
Non-GMO sells big
Leading European retailers such as Aldi, Carrefour, EDEKA, Kaufland, Lidl, Rewe and SPAR have been following a strict non-GMO policy for many years. They are in perfect harmony with their customers: Consumers do not want to eat GMOs, retailers do not want to sell them. Consequently, there are no labelled GMO products in European supermarket shelves but a wide range of products labelled as “non-GMO”.
The non-GMO claim closes the labelling gap in EU GMO legislation: Currently, only genetically modified feed is subject to GMO labelling, but not the food products made from it. The “non-GMO” label – used on a voluntary basis by hundreds of European companies in an increasing number of member states – excludes GMOs in products of animal origin. In Germany, 50% of milk, 60% of poultry meat and 70% of eggs are produced “non-GMO”. In Austria, the entire milk and egg production (since 2010) and all poultry (since 2012) is “non-GMO”.
No legal trickery
Since the ECJ´s classification of new genetic engineering procedures as GMOs, there has been strong lobbying pressure at EU level and in several member states to have the EU GMO legislation amended with a new GMO definition or with the exemption of certain methods from regulation.
If new GMOs were to be deregulated, food retailers would unknowingly and unintentionally run the risk of selling GMO products to their customers. Food retailers, rather than the companies that develop and market GM seeds, would be confronted with questions from, and the anger of, consumers.
References to an amended EU GMO legislation would certainly not offer a solution. A general public that is critical of GMOs will hardly find it acceptable that products previously classified by the highest EU court as genetically modified should suddenly lose this designation merely due to an amendment of the legislation. This would be perceived as legal trickery in favour of the GMO lobby.
Safety first: Why deregulation of new GMOs is not an option
The food sector is responsible and liable for the safety of the products it produces and sells. The new genetic engineering methods do not have a history of safe use: CRISPR/Cas was described for the first time in 2012, for use in the laboratory. The alleged safety of new genetic engineering and its products is a mere claim not substantiated by systematic scientific studies. Most publications focus on what is feasible with the new techniques, not on potential adverse effects.
The deregulation of new GMOs would undermine the ECJ ruling, leading to the elimination of approval procedures, risk assessment and labelling requirements. Health and environmental impacts would no longer be examined by national and EU regulatory authorities. There would be no obligation for biotech companies to provide detection methods – a significant threat to traceability and recall options. In essence, new GMOs would be channelled into the market untested and unlabelled. This is unacceptable.
Proper implementation of ECJ ruling needed
The new EU Commission must put a stop to the ongoing lobby attempts to soften or even abolish the existing EU GMO legislation. It must ensure the proper implementation of the ECJ judgement: The precautionary principle, risk assessment, detectability, traceability and labelling have to be applied to all new GMOs. In particular, the EU Commission is called upon to initiate research on detection methods for new GMOs. It has to ensure effective controls for agricultural goods imported from countries where new GMOs are cultivated. In addition, a global transparency register is necessary which would cover all GMOs worldwide, both old and new.
We invite the new Commission to open its mind and to recognize which are the most relevant and most affected economic players when it comes to GMOs. Key players are the European food retailers with a €1 trillion turnover per year, millions of costumers every day – and a clear non-GMO attitude.